Bergen Stavanger Hardangerfjord

A novice’s guide to driving in Norway

There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to driving in Norway, so here we go!

We drove 1,328 kilometers / 825 miles which amounted to about 26 hours of driving due to the speed limits and Norway’s complex road infrastructure.

There were two days when our driving time exceeded six hours and the drives to our hikes were usually two hours each way.

These were long driving days for us. The only times I’ve driven since January 2020 was in Italy, the US, and thrice in Greece. The max driving per day during those trips was two hours.

That said, I am a person who likes to drive so I didn’t mind, though driving two-and-a-half hours after hiking on the last day of our vacation edged me toward my limit.

Here’s a list of shortcuts if you’re looking for specific information.

Car rental

We rented our car from Hertz at the Bergen airport.

I’d read that a driving license must be held for at least a year in order to rent a car in Norway – I have no idea if they checked those details. I armed myself with both my US and UK driving licenses because my UK driving license had been renewed less than a year ago and, at a quick glance, it could have been construed as being issued (not renewed) less than a year ago.

It’s crazy that I’ve had my UK driving license for 11 years.

The Hertz counter was in the Arrivals hall of the Bergen airport. Checking in was super fast and we were on our way to the parking garage within a matter of minutes. In fact, the walk from the Hertz counter to the parking garage took longer than checking in.

We were given a Toyota Yaris hybrid that looked brand new but surprisingly had 22,592 km / 14,000 mi on it. I loved driving this zippy little car.

I normally excel at parking so I’m not sure what happened here

The first thing I noticed when we got to the car was that it was an automatic transmission. Jackpot!

Then I noticed it was fully loaded: heated seats and steering wheel, steering wheel controls, satellite radio, lane assistance, radar-assisted cruise control, regular cruise control, and power windows (all of them versus only the front two that we typically find with rental cars).

Our rental agreement was for an economy car with a manual transmission, quoted at $800 USD for a 10-day rental. This price included a one-way fee of $188 USD because we were picking up the car in Bergen and dropping it off in Stavanger.

The price we were actually charged for the rental was $707 USD. I have no idea why and I didn’t ask questions.

The car was fitted with an AutoPASS (aka toll tag) and a deposit of $300 USD was put on our credit card to cover imminent AutoPASS charges. After returning the car, we were emailed two detailed statements of our AutoPASS charges.

Here’s the first statement.

In addition to the car rental cost, we racked up the following charges.

  • Tolls (15) and ferries (6) = $158 USD
  • Parking = $187 USD
  • Petrol (95 unleaded) = $127 USD

The grand total came to $1,179 USD. Not bad for 26 hours of driving.

We returned our car to the Stavanger airport. The Hertz counter was in the Arrivals hall, at the end of the airport near the car rental return parking lot.

The handoff to Hertz could not have been easier. We handed the representative the keys and she asked, “Was everything good?” I said, “Excellent” and we were on our way.

Hertz gets a rating of 10/10.

Geography

The geography in Norway is complex which makes it impossible to get anywhere fast. We explored the southwestern coast and when we weren’t dealing with maneuvering around a mountain, we were dealing with maneuvering around a body of water.

And by “maneuvering around,” I mean, going through, under, over, and around. Sometimes two maneuvers at the same time!

Like the time we were driving through the Folgefonntunnelen and there was a glacial lake somewhere above the tunnel.

The mountains in this region did not look like what I typically think of a mountain looking like. They didn’t have jagged peaks and long, sloped sides.

Instead, the tops were plateaus (or “gentle rolling peaks”) and the sides were very steep, oftentimes they were sheer vertical faces.

As for bodies of water, the water in this region takes on many forms: waterfalls, rivers, lakes, fjords, inlets, and the ocean.

The one form of water everyone travels to Norway to see is, of course, the fjords.

A fjord is a long, narrow body of water, created by a glacier(s), that reaches far inland. I didn’t know this until our fjord safari on Hardangerfjord but fjords are super deep and they tend to be the deepest the farther inland it goes, which seems backward, doesn’t it?

They can be thousands of meters/feet deep and some have coral reefs that are home to fish, plankton, and other organisms that like pitch darkness.

Fjords also have arms which are like tributaries but are huge and would eat a tributary for breakfast… along with the river or lake that it flowed into.

We stayed at a hotel on Hardangerfjord for three nights in the middle of our vacation. Hardangerfjord is the second-longest fjord in Norway and the third (or fifth, depending on the resource) longest fjord in the world. The fjords that beat Hardangerfjord are Scoresby Sund in Greenland and Sognefjord in Norway.

To put some context around what is meant by “long,” Hardangerfjord is 179 km (111 miles) long. It begins in the Atlantic Ocean about 80 km (50 miles) south of Bergen and extends inland in a northeasterly direction.

Now imagine a body of water that is 111 miles long (and extremely wide) separating two pieces of land and how a person gets from one side of the water to the other in a car. It’s unrealistic that the person will drive to the end of the fjord, loop around it, and drive back on the other side in the direction they just came from, right?

And bridges, well, they are expensive to build, especially in rural areas where there isn’t a lot of traffic.

Getting around fjords is one of the many complexities of Norway’s road infrastructure.

Our basecamp for three nights was in a village called Norheimsund, located midway on Hardangerfjord. The midway point is also the deepest point in the fjord with a depth of 860 m / 2,820 ft.

For comparison, that’s:

  • 9.2 Statue of Liberties OR
  • 2.6 Eiffel Towers OR
  • 1.57 Freedom Towers OR
  • 1.04 Burj Kalifas

As another comparison, the deepest point of the Mississippi River is 61 m / 200 ft. Even Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the US and seventh deepest in the world, doesn’t even come close at 592 m / 1,943 ft.

What I’m trying to say is that fjords are really big. Think big and then multiply it by 10.

Whether we were standing on the shore of a fjord or on the peak of a mountain, the views were stunning. I’m at a loss of words trying to explain it.

This may sound cliche, but it’s something you have to see to believe. It’s simply breathtaking.

Infrastructure

Now that I’ve touched on the lay of the land a little bit, let’s talk about road infrastructure and how Norwegians have tackled their geographic challenges.

Norway’s road infrastructure is an engineering masterclass. I am certain they spy on big-scale infrastructure projects around the world like the Big Dig in Boston, the SR99 tunnel in Seattle, and Crossrail in England and shake their heads at how poorly those projects always seem to go.

1) Roads, like actual tarmac. The roads are in perfect condition. There are no potholes or crumbling tarmac. Road markings and lines are brightly painted. Road signs are plentiful and shiny!

2) With as much water as there was, there weren’t a lot of bridges. I think that’s because bridges are mostly used for short spans but I can’t say for certain. The weirdest bridge scenario for me was when a bridge connected two mountain tunnels. We’d be driving through a tunnel, exit the tunnel onto a bridge, and immediately enter another tunnel.

One-lane bridge crossing an arm of Hardangerfjord

3) Ferries were the most common way to cross big bodies of water, like fjords. Some ferries, like the Jondal-Tørvikbygd ferry, were electric and would connect to a port at the dock to charge as the vehicles were on/off loaded. Others like the Mortavika-Arsvagen ferry were powered by fossil fuels.

We were tethered to the Jondal-Tørvikbygd during our time in Hardangerfjord. We took it five times! This ferry is a shuttle that runs once an hour from one side of the fjord to the other and we collectively spent ~1.5 hours waiting for ferries to arrive due to our timing coming back from hikes.

I didn’t like being tethered to a ferry schedule but I liked not having to drive to the end of the fjord, looping around, and driving back on the other side of the fjord.

4) Road tunnels are defined as a tunnel that vehicular traffic can pass through. They are plentiful in Norway and they range in length, grade, etc. I lost count of how many tunnels we drove through but it’s the vicinity of 75. The longest was 14.4 kilometers (8.9 miles) and the shortest was 37 meters (121 feet).

The 14.4 km tunnel was not an outlier for us. We drove through at least two 11 km tunnels, one 10 km tunnel, and plenty of 5-8 km tunnels.

Fun fact: The longest road tunnel in Norway also happens to be the longest road tunnel in the world. The Lærdal tunnel is 24.5 km / 15.25 mi long and allows for a ferry-free drive from Oslo to Bergen.

The longer tunnels had light shows at their midway points. The walls would illuminate in blue and fade to green, then to red, etc. I appreciated the light shows because driving through tunnels can be monotonous and is a lot like driving at night. I admit, there were a few times when I got sleepy.

Here’s a video I took of driving in a tunnel. My phone was in a cradle suctioned to the windshield (British English: windscreen) so the black blob on the left is the arm of the cradle.

One time we drove through an 8 km / 5 mi tunnel and didn’t see another car in the tunnel! Such sophisticated roads for a rural area, I thought.

Some tunnels had neon artwork on the walls.

Some had “rustic” walls. Others had smooth concrete.

Some were fitted to carry radio signals, others were not and the radio went silent when we entered the tunnel. On one drive, we’d been without the radio for about an hour and the radio started blaring when we entered a tunnel. It made no sense but we were happy to have the radio signal back.

There were straight tunnels, curvy tunnels, inclines, declines, double-decker perpendicular tunnels, mountain tunnels, and underwater tunnels.

All tunnels except two were one lane in each direction. The two tunnels that had multiple lanes were underwater tunnels near Stavanger. These tunnels had a steep decline (8% grade), followed by a flat bottom, and finally, another 8% grade incline on the otehr end of the tunnel. A third lane was added in these tunnels at the incline sections, allowing vehicles to pass if needed.

5) For as many miles of road as there are in Norway, there was a shortage of rest stops/toilets. We saw a few lookouts that had toilets during our drives but there was not a lot of forewarning that they were coming and it was difficult to access them last minute when there was a queue of vehicles stacked up behind us. It would have required slamming on the breaks which is absolutely not the Norwegian way of driving.

When we needed a break, we usually stopped at gas stations. On our drive from Hardangerfjord to Stavanger, there was a large “rest area,” similar to what you’d find in the US. It had a gas station, giant supermarket, car wash, children’s playground, picnic tables, and a Peppes Pizza.

As a side note, Peppes Pizza is a Norwegian pizza chain modeled after Chicago deep-dish pizza. It tasted like a personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut.

6) Lastly, I want to touch on Norway’s network of scenic drives.

There are 18 official Norwegian Scenic Routes which are roads that Norway considers “particularly beautiful”. I’d like to see their list of qualifications for a scenic drive because every road we drove was “particularly beautiful” but, Norway is the boss here and they say they’ve only got 18 so we’ll go with it.

Along with being “particularly beautiful,” these routes are touted as having architecturally designed lookouts and “extremely fancy bathrooms” to bring you closer to nature. We drove most of the Aurlandsfjellet route and bits and pieces of the Hardanger and Ryfylke routes.

Rules of the road

In my opinion, there are three primary rules of driving in Norway.

  • Be polite
  • Respect the speed limit
  • Don’t drink and drive (legal limit is 0.02%, so basically 0%)

1) Politeness

Norway probably has the politest drivers in the world. I never heard a car honk its horn nor experienced any aggressive drivers.

Be polite. Let vehicles merge. Don’t tailgate. Don’t honk. Wave and smile at other drivers when they let you merge. Be patient.

2) Merging

One time, we were trying to make a left turn onto a busy road. The busy road had the right of way. We were patiently waiting for a break in the traffic and then the cars on the busy road stopped to let us turn left onto the road.

The situation was confusing at first but I quickly learned that this is just how things work in Norway.

Another merging tactic is the zipper merge. The purpose of the zipper merge is to drive all the way to the end of the “merging lane” and merge into the other lane in an every-other-car format.

Everyone in Norway follows the zipper merge etiquette by driving to the end of the lane and politely merging so don’t try to merge early. It’s not the Norwegian way!

3) Speed limits

The national speed limit is the speed limit unless otherwise stated by speed limit signs.

In rural areas and on motorways, it is 80 kph (50 mph). In built-up areas, it is 50 kph (30 mph).

There was one instance when we drove on a road with a speed limit above 80 kph and that was on the motorway outside of Stavanger. The speed limit on that road was a blazing 90 kph (56 mph).

4) Headlights

Dipped headlights (aka daytime running lights) are mandatory at all times, even on bright sunny days. Why? Tunnels and blind corners on narrow mountain roads.

5) Passing/overtaking

In general, vehicles do not pass/overtake other vehicles.

The only time passing occurred was when a vehicle was driving below the speed limit. I passed three cars during our 825 miles of driving.

Another reason why there is so little passing is because of the narrow and winding roads which make it extremely dangerous. I can recall only two stretches of non-tunnel road that were straight enough for long enough to safely pass a vehicle.

This may sound strange but the safest place to pass vehicles was in tunnels. Tunnels are usually straight for long periods of time and it’s easy to see an oncoming vehicle’s headlights.

Gas/petrol stations

Gas/petrol stations in Norway are… interesting…

I’ll lead with this: every gas station we went into had an American diner theme inside. Like red and white vinyl booths and hot dogs rolling on hot metal rollers in a glass case on the counter type of thing.

The more rural the station, the more diner-themed it got. I don’t know what was going on there. I was just in it for a toilet break and an ice cream sandwich, the nation’s favorite frozen treat.

The gas pumps were self-service, similar to the ones in the US where you insert your credit card and fill up the tank with the desired amount. I wish Italy and Greece would get on board with this technology from the 90s.

As for gas prices, have a seat.

We filled up twice, both with unleaded 95 as that was the only unleaded available. Once in Norheimsund in Hardangerfjord and the other at the Stavanger airport. We paid 25.42 NOK per liter in Norheimsund and 26.98 NOK per liter at the airport.

In USD, this equates to $11.63 and $12.35 per gallon, respectively.

At an average of $12/gallon, I was delighted that we were driving a hybrid because we only spent $127 in gas to drive 825 miles.

That distance, 825 miles, is 120 miles short of driving from Dallas to Minneapolis. If we were in the US and spending $5/gallon (more realistically $6+ for unleaded 95), it would have cost something like $58 to drive from Dallas to Minneapolis in our zippy Toyota Yaris.

Resources

Below is a list of resources I used to prep for our vacation in Norway.

ResourceLink
Visit Norway – getting around by carLink
Visit Norway – scenic routesLink
Norway’s weather forecasting systemLink

Next: Norway’s second city, Bergen.

1 comment on “A novice’s guide to driving in Norway

  1. $12.35 per gallon, holy cow!

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